Do you dream of headlining a big music festival?
Not surprisingly, a crucial step towards that goal is: booking your FIRST music festival slot!
With 1,000+ annual music festivals in the USA and Europe alone, there’s a whole world of opportunity out there for you to wow IRL audiences with your live show.
In this article we’ll explore:
- the pros and cons of festival performances
- how to know if you’re ready for a festival gig
- and a few different ways to book your first festival slot
Let’s dive in!
Why play music festivals?
This might sound like a strange place to start, but it’s worth asking: Do you really WANT to explore music festival opportunities?
Some festivals are amazing, career-defining experiences:
Coachella, Glastonbury, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Newport Folk Festival, ZoukOut, Rolling Loud, Lollapalooza Brasil…
Impress those audiences and your music will be all over TikTok and Instagram. As memorable as it may be to rock one of those stages, though, your presence at a festival of that calibre probably means you’ve already built your career to a certain level.
On the way there, you’ll have to consider OTHER kinds of festivals. Small festivals catering to niche genres. Upstart festivals that highlight your city or region’s art scene. Or brand new events that haven’t been proven yet.
Smaller music festivals give you a chance to:
- Perform in front of the most dedicated music fans in a geographic region
- Reach curious listeners who are open to discovering new sounds across genres
- Build your festival resumé
- Meet, befriend, or collaborate with other up-and-coming acts
But let’s be honest: You might also encounter disorganized festivals. Crap attendance. Failed promotion. Bad weather. Scammy directors. Terrible sound and production. And really, is there anything worse than bad sound at an outdoor gig? The answer is no.
Playing a music festival can be unforgettable. Unforgettably great or disastrous. I’m not trying to discourage you. Just want to set some realistic expectations:
Not all festivals are created equal. Your mileage may vary.
Some things to consider about music festival opportunities
Travel costs versus pay
What is the compensation for your performance? How far away is the festival? Do you need a hotel? Can you book other tour dates on your way there and back? How much will you pay in gas and food?
If it’s a great festival opportunity, it may be worth the trip for breakeven or even a slight loss. But you’ll want to think through those calculations beforehand.
Time and visibility of your festival slot
I said above that not all festivals are created equal. The same goes for slots within any given festival.
What good is playing a festival if your set is early in the day while attendees are sleeping off a hangover, or if you’re playing the most inconvenient stage at the same time as a main-stage act that will draw crowds AWAY from you?
If you’re not familiar with the festival first-hand, ask around to gain perspective. Read reviews online. Check out TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube for video from the previous year’s event, with a specific search focus on your slot, stage, and time.
Level of festival audience engagement
While it’s often the case that music festival attendees are open-minded and enthusiastic, it can also be true that… they’re not specifically there for YOUR music.
A big festival with many competing stages can have the feeling of an all-you-can-eat buffet, where listeners sample a bit of this, a bit of that, but don’t fully invest in anything except the headliners.
Other festivals — like Portland, Oregon’s Pickathon — put a huge emphasis on new music, and create an environment where attendees are really excited to hear the lesser-known acts.
So again, do a little research to get a sense for whether actual music discovery is happening on the smaller stages.
The reality of festival merch sales
This is another area that can be a huge win or a big disappointment.
If you slay, your new fans may jump at the chance to meet you at the merch table (assuming merch sales are permitted during the festival). But it could also be true that in the rush of an action-packed festival, your audience moves quickly to the next set.
This is yet another area where a little research can help you set proper expectations.
Your default assumption is probably that the festival IS your opportunity. But it’s worth asking what you’ll be giving up to play the festival.
That could be the monetary costs we mentioned above, but it could also be other paying gigs you have to decline.
To festival, or not to festival?
Now even if you total up the worst of all the above scenarios: Small stage, early hours, unfocused audience, no merch sales, turning down gigs at home…
… playing your first music festival may still be worth it.
It’s a foot-in-the-door and a resumé-builder. A chance to make an impact on a few new listeners. A way to familiarize yourself with a new performance environment. A challenge to push through discomfort and gain confidence for future shows.
In other words, the experience alone — even if it’s far from ideal — may be a growth opportunity worth pursuing.
But are you READY to perform at a music festival?
Once you’ve answered whether a festival is right for you, you’ll have to figure out if you are right for the festival.
Here are 9 things that music festivals will look for when booking acts:
1. Great performance skills
The time to prove to yourself (and others) that you can consistently deliver an amazing live show is BEFORE you attempt to take the festival stage.
Music festivals are, obviously, performance events! So you want to be well-rehearsed and have plenty of stage experience before submitting to festivals.
Festivals want to know you’ll keep audiences engaged, not turn them away, which would diminish the reputation of the overall event.
If your show is great AND unique, all the better — because that uniqueness may help you check off a few of the other boxes below.
2. Quality live-performance video
It’s not enough to play great shows. You need to have proof. That means: video and photo documentation of you sounding great and your audience loving it.
Assuming the festival staff hasn’t heard you perform before, this live content (which should be easily accessible on your website and YouTube) will be the primary way a festival can assess what you’ll bring to their event.
Some general rules for live performance videos:
- Capture great sound — No distorted camera mic. No crowd conversation talking over the music.
- Show the audience — Again, the booker wants proof you can move the room. If the venue is packed, capture the crowd. If the venue isn’t packed, capture footage of the band close-up to the stage, and then get additional footage close up on individual audience faces.
- Avoid the tripod shot — The motionless camera at the back of the room is boring. Have someone hold the camera and move around to highlight the physical dynamics of your performance.
- “At home” is okay — If you can’t capture video of a gig, you should at least have a live performance video from your home, rehearsal space, etc. You can also take video from house concerts if that’s appropriate for your genre and the audience consents to being on camera.
3. A clearly defined musical brand
You should be past the point of your musical journey where you’re discovering who you are, what you have to say, and what your sound is.
This isn’t to suggest you can’t change and evolve, but rather… you should’ve already made a clear musical statement, backed by a visual aesthetic and a sense of story that resonate with a particular audience.
As EDM-festival organizer Evan Bailey says:
“Regardless of the style of music you love, it’s important to have a defined sound and strive to be an innovator. Although that’s easier said than done — too often, young artists imitate what they hear working elsewhere. Although inspiration is part of any artist’s work, it’s important to really develop your own sound, look, etc. On the business side, it helps promoters when artists have a defined and unique brands, too.”
Your brand, almost as much as your songs and performance skills, will be an important factor in how seriously a festival considers your participation.
4. Industry buzz and social traction
All festivals want to establish a kind of cultural relevance. Festival directors and bookers want to feel confident that they’re hiring the best talent within their means.
The more buzz and traction around your music, in the press, amongst the industry and fellow acts, and on social, the better. That shows the festivals that you’ll bring the excitement factor.
Of course the level of buzz you need to reach will differ based on the profile of the festival. But all this to say, your first festival slot will probably be an event that coincides with or follows your social growth and networking. It won’t precede it.
5. An official release with momentum
To put this simply, most festivals are booking acts who’ve released music on popular DSPs like Spotify and Apple Music. Even if you’ve only dropped a few singles, that counts!
But most festivals are NOT considering acts with zero output, or output that has gotten zero attention.
6. Accessible and digestible pitch information
Whatever you wanna call it — an EPK, an ABOUT page, a one-sheet — you’ll need an easily accessible section of your website where you can include all the relevant information that a festival planner will want to see when considering your act for their event.
You’ll be squeezing a lot into this page, so try to make it as punchy and digestible as possible.
Your website’s festival-pitch page should contain:
- Links to your music on the most popular DSPs
- Links to your TikTok, Instagram, and X profiles (if applicable)
- A short bio (one or two paragraphs)
- A summary of your social stats, audience size and demographics, etc.
- An embedded YouTube video of your performing live
- Hi-res photo(s)
- Press quotes
- Highlights from your touring history
- Your festival history (though if you’re reading this article, you probably don’t have that yet!)
- Testimonials from talent buyers, venue owners, or even fans — about your live show
- Contact info
7. Availability and commitment
This probably sounds obvious, but make sure you’re actually available to play the event before you make your pitch.
Confirm the availability of everyone else in your act. Make sure every they each mark their calendars with tentative holds.
8. An unforgettable festival moment
One of the best ways to indicate your value to the festival is to prepare a pitch that includes a performance promise.
Can you do something during your festival slot that just screams “viral moment?” Something that will make the audience grab for their cameras? Something they’ll go home talking about more than anything else they saw at the festival?
Your unforgettable music fest performance could include:
- A whole set collaboration with another act
- A surprise guest for a song or two
- A big reveal
- A performance stunt or emotionally-connective moment
- A tribute to another artist or album
- A prop (but not tiny Stonehenge!)
Figure out how to make that moment a reality. And then put it in your pitch.
9. Artist and audience demographics
Grant-funded festivals may have criteria to meet as they build the lineup.
For instance, some Canadian events are obliged to feature a certain percentage of Canadian artists.
Other events may be guided by a specific mission statement that would favor certain artist applicants based on genre, age, race, geography, or other demographics. And of course many festivals are driven to present a diverse lineup out of a sense of social responsibility, or simply because it makes a better event.
As IndieWeek founder Darryl Hurs explained:
“Diversity and demographics are a big factor, as festival promoters are becoming more sensitive to making sure that everybody is included.”
All that to say, you’ll want to be aware of the what, who, and where of both the artist lineup and the attendees. If you can help the festival achieve a goal besides just being great on stage, don’t shy away from mentioning it!
Tips for finding your first music festival slot
Once you know you’re qualified to take the festival stage, how do you find your first festival slot? Here are some guidelines to point you in the right direction.
Start with local music festivals
Be realistic: You’re probably not going to make your festival debut at the Newport Folk Festival. They’re extremely selective and plan long in advance.
Like most things in music, it’s easiest to make your mark amongst smaller communities first, whether they’re online or in your geographic region.
For your first festival, start by looking in your hometown. Ask local bands and venues. And of course, go to your local festivals!
Look for NON-music festivals
There are other reasons to throw a festival, and sometimes those non-music events will still have music stages.
When I lived in Oregon, for instance, I played an annual food festival on the river with a huge mainstage for music. Even though attendees hadn’t arrived specifically for the music, it was still a large audience of people that stuck around to listen. In my current hometown, there’s a summer beerfest that has multiple music acts throughout the day. Come for the beer, stay for the music.
So don’t be afraid to start your search outside of music. Talk to city staff and Chamber of Commerce reps. They’ll be aware of what events are in the works.
Plan at least a year in advance
Timing is everything. And most successful events take a long time to plan, promote, and produce.
Start your research and your pitching early.
Meet people in the festival world!
Networking. It’s important in most fields. And festivals are no exception.
First, be sure to follow the accounts of festivals you may want to play someday. Follow AND engage! Not only will this help the planners get familiar with you, but you can stay up-to-date on the latest festival announcements and deadlines (which are usually shared on social).
But don’t start and end with Instagram and TikTok. You can often have a more meaningful dialog with people on LinkedIn, Discord, or Reddit.
And perhaps even more impactful than online networking, attend industry events and music conferences! I usually attend Folk Alliance International every year, and there are reps from some of the biggest festivals in folk and Americana music at that event.
Sure, there can be an expense to travel to a networking event such as that, but you get to meet a lot of people face-to-face, all in one place, get your questions answered directly, and go home with more confidence when you follow up on those conversations.
And remember your local industry mixers, musician union meetups, and more. If there are worthwhile music festivals in your area, there’s bound to be someone who knows someone at those events.
Get a booking agent
I know, I know. That’s easier said than done.
And you might not be ready for a booking agent. After all, a booking agent expects to be paid commission based on the gigs you’re playing. Are you performing enough profitable gigs per year to justify their work? Many agents won’t even consider you as a client until you’ve proven to tour a certain number of days per year.
That being said, an agent CAN help open doors to festivals. It’s their world, after all. And just like PR and various forms of promo, it can sometimes help cut through the pile of pitches and emails to have trusted representation.
Go through the VENUES instead
Many urban festival events host events across multiple music venues. I used to play this type of festival in Oregon (at the time it was called MusicFestNW), and it had the fun vibe of a pub crawl, but with music. This gives you the chance to start inquiries from the ground up — beginning with the venues, rather than the festival organizers.
Darryl Hurs of IndieWeek reminded me of this when he offered his advice on getting into festivals:
“Often festivals will work with participating venue bookers as to what artists are playing that venue during the festival. If you are starting locally, really get to know the venues that take part in the festivals. For instance, I worked closely with one particular venue and booked a lot of shows there, and was then able to talk to THEM about how to get artists into certain festivals that their venue participates in. And in some cases, it was a backdoor to actually getting the artist into the festival.”
Familiarize yourself with the primary music festival roles
Do you know the right people to contact when you pitch your music for a festival?
It helps to have a sense of each of the festival staff’s responsibilities.
Larger festival staff may include:
- Festival Director – Like the producer of a record, this person is responsible for the overall financial, artistic, and cultural success of the effort.
- Artistic Director – Supervises the vibe of the festival, and can have significant influence over the lineup.
- Booker (or Talent Buyer) – The person who will consider, negotiate, and hire the acts.
- Production and Stage Managers – These people head up the physical infrastructure at the event as well as the sound/lighting for each stage.
- Outreach Team – There will also likely be marketers, a publicist, and a sponsorship manager. These experts help grow awareness, attendance, and revenue for the festival.
- Coordinator and Runners – The people who plan travel and transport festival acts, journalists, etc.
- As well as a small army of other staff, security, volunteers, photographers, social media coordinators, hospitality, and more.
Stay organized as you research festivals
If you’re taking your festival research seriously, you’re going to want a central place to store all the info you’ve gathered. Make a spreadsheet with all the relevant contact and pitching information for each festival.
Your festival contact sheet should include:
- Festival name
- Event dates
- Official website and social links
- Deadlines for submission
- Submission requirements
- Contact info or URL for contact form
- Requirements of the pitch
- Date of pitch
- Date to follow-up
- Any other needs (for instance, if the festival is in another country, will you need to renew a passport or file other paperwork?)
Make a great festival pitch!
All your work up until this point has been preparation for the pitch.
Now how can you make an undeniable case for your music at this event?
Your festival pitch should:
- Meet all the festival’s stated requirements (read carefully!)
- Be as brief and punchy as possible, while still emphasizing your qualifications
- Clarify in the first paragraph what benefit you provide to the festival (remember what I mentioned earlier about unforgettable moments, demographics, and mission)
- Include your contact info and a link to your website’s festival pitch page
Stay ready, even if you don’t get booked for a festival
If you’ve never played a festival, you may be in an early phase of your musical journey where — because you haven’t proven yourself at a festival yet — you get a lot of rejections. Or just a lack of response.
That probably feels like a Catch-22: How can I play a festival if I haven’t played a festival?
But one important thing to keep in mind is: Festivals often have last-minute emergencies. Bands break up. Artists get sick. Flights get cancelled. Vans break down.
You might be able to save the day and rock that festival slot after all. But in order to do so, you have to stay rehearsed, stay ready, and be accommodating to the festival staff you’ve already communicated with.
If they reject your first pitch, don’t be rude or defensive. Thank them for their consideration, and make sure to tell them that if any acts fall through, you’d be thrilled to fill in.
Then be sure to reach back out to the festival in the weeks or days before the event. As long as you’re not pestering these people night and day, that followup might arrive just in the nick of time.
I’m not saying to block out your calendar for a festival you’re not scheduled to play. Take other gigs if they come up, of course! But if the dates are still free when the festival nears, check in with the organizers again.
As you can see, there’s a lot that goes into playing your first music festival.
From researching the options, to considering which are right for you, to making a winning pitch. It can be a lot of work.
But when you’re finally playing in front of that enthusiastic festival crowd, the work will have all been worth it.
You won’t leave the event thinking about all the steps it took to get there.
You’ll be fixated on what’s most important: the audience, your music, and the magic that happens when the two meet.